"Mora mora" (take it easy, pay attention and don't stress). Past Review

By (Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology., Wellesley College) - abroad from 06/21/2012 to 08/04/2012 with

SIT Study Abroad: Madagascar - Traditional Medicine and Healthcare Systems (Summer)

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
I learned what it really feels like to be colonized (however vicariously) and to live in poverty. I came to understand how you must first go into a place and ask what they need, and work with the local system, for aid to be effective, and how you must allow people access to resources, even while you are trying to protect them, but in such a way that the people and the resources (like the rain forests) can coexist. I learned how to shower with a bucket of water, and to be even less materialistic -- down to the very basics of what you need to survive. I came to fully understand how impossible Western wealth appears to people in poverty, and how the degrees of wealth in the Western world are completely missed by most of them because having a house with running water and living in a clean environment without trash IS in itself the most wealthy you can be. The concept that not all people live in mansions like the Hollywood stars is simply not there. Obviously I also learned about Madagascar's history, traditional medicines and health care systems, and I improved my French and Malagasy, but more importantly, I learn that whereas I saw the Malagasy people as happy -- some of the nicest and happiest people I know, in fact -- the people themselves spoke only of how much more miserable people have been since the political crisis in 2009 and the transition government. I learned how much can change when the government system is unstable. I learned what it's like to be most afraid of the police officers, who often steal from people and have guns, than the "dangerous" people on the streets. The experience was unique, and in many ways, it can never be repeated. Yes, it was worthwhile.

Personal Information

If you took classes at multiple universities, list those universities here: University of Antananarivo
How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 1 month - 6 months

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

I found that the program was rigorous in an entirely new way. Whereas I am used to having to memorize for class tests and quizzes, with SIT's program, I found myself having to learn on my feet - and remember everything - in part for my education, but in part also just to survive and thrive in the new culture. As a result, I have learned more, remember more, and put into practice more knowledge than I have ever done before from my traditional classroom-style coursework. Overall, I am very pleased with the educational experience and believe it's impact will shape my character as a student, as a person, and hopefully, as a doctor in the future.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

The program was well organized, with highlights including visiting Madagascar's Minister of Health, several drug research and development facilities, and several health facilities, including public and private hospitals, traditional healers, and holy sites where health rituals are performed.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

The housing was part of the educational experience, and the program would not have been the same without the bucket-showers and occasional bed bugs.

* Food:

The food, like the housing, was provided by host families and was a part of the educational experience. While I do not usually have to clean stones out of my rice or eat fish whole, bones included, I do think that learning that most people do was an important lesson.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

We spent almost every moment integrated with the local culture, at home, at school, and even on excursions. We spent significant time with the local pharmacology students, developing close friendships, and we learned to navigate the city and villages on our own - even with the complicated and somewhat unreliable bus system. We grew so into the habit of going to bed soon after sunset and rising with the sun that I still do that today, despite the fact that this means I go to bed before my grandmother.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

I was sick a couple of times while on the program, once in the rural homestay and once in the urban homestay. The program doctor visited me, or I was taken to him, within 48 hours of my reporting symptoms each time. In the first instance, I felt that he was not called for early enough, and I felt that my sickness was not given proper attention given the severity, but the second time, I felt that I was over medicated, perhaps because I reported the sickness more early on to prevent a delayed response as had happened before. I did not require any additional vaccinations for this program, as I already had all of the additional vaccinations required from my trip to Mexico. I therefore do not recall what vaccinations are required. I did, however, have to take anti-malaria medication. Having spent the summer there, I do not think that I would choose to do so again for this program unless it is absolutely REQUIRED by the WHO because it is not malaria season during our summer (as it is their winter and therefore cold without many mosquitos), and taking such strong medication on a daily basis made me very sick with side affects (including nausea, diarrhea, and loss of apetite, among others). As a result, I lost 15 pounds that I did not need to lose and indeed, for health reasons should not have, although my host families provided me with significantly more food than I was able or willing to finish (because of my loss of apetite).

* Safety:

After the first two weeks in Antananarivo, I felt safe to travel alone during the day, including when taking public transportation, walking, and taking taxis. I had no trouble with pickpockets, although I did take the precaution to hold my bag in front of me (where I could see it at all times) and to not take out my more valuable stuff. I also felt safe at night when I was with other people I knew. I felt safe traveling alone both during the day and at night in the rural village. I did not, however, feel safe in my first urban homestay family after someone from the family broke into my locked plastic box and stole my money, twice (a value amounting to 100 USD). I finally requested a new urban homestay family after my younger host brother attempted to rape me in my sleep. Fortunately, he was small and weak enough that I could throw him off of me, but I did not feel that the Academic Director took the rape attempt seriously (although he was willing to give me a new host family, the members of which were incredible nice and almost made up for the horror of the other urban homestay, for the final 3 days of the trip). As such, I would advise all future students to immediately request a change of homestay families if they ever feel the least bit uncomfortable because you do not know when your uneasiness is actually merited. No one else had any problems with their homestay families, except that one of the other student's rural homestay family took his jacket and hid it, arguing that they did not know what jacket he was talking about, so he was forced to leave it behind.

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes


* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)

Once I was actually in the country, the costs were very minimal as the USD - Ariary conversion rate was very favorable for Americans.

* Was housing included in your program cost? Yes
* Was food included in your program cost? Yes
Not including program expenses, about how much money did you spend on food and other expenses each week? $15
Do you have any general money-saving tips for future study abroad participants? Do not buy any gift items in the first two weeks, at least. This gives you time to learn what prices are reasonable and how to bargain. I advise future students to practice bargaining, by offering less than 50 cents for any item, without any intention of buying the item just to understand to what extent people are overcharging you. Also, the book, THE LONELY PLANET, for Madagascar is a very good resource for where to go to get the biggest bang for your buck.


* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
How much did the program encourage you to use the language?

0 = No encouragement, 5 = frequent encouragement to use the language

As my host families did not speak any English, I had to use my French and very minimal Malagasy to communicate on a daily basis. The program also encouraged interactions with the University of Antananarivo's students, and I used my French to communicate with my very close friends there, also on a daily basis, both in person and via text message. French was the primary language for the classes and coursework. I also had to use French to communicate with the driver, the professors, and around town.

How would you rate your language skills at the beginning of the program? Intermediate
How would you rate your language skills at the end of the program? Advanced
What was the highest level language course you had completed prior to departure? FREN 211
How many hours per day did you use the language? 10+
Do you have any tips/advice on the best ways to practice the language for future study abroad participants? The best way I found to practice my French was to befriend the local students. Not only did I talk more in French when I was with them (as opposed to when I was with only the Americans), I also had to remember all the French grammar rules when I texted them. Even though the classes were very French-intensive, I thought that the daily practice with friends improved my language skills the most. I also found it very helpful to have a French-English dictionary downloaded onto my iPhone (which I brought, but kept on airplane mode). Another option is to carry around a French-English pocket dictionary. I found the downloaded app more useful because it was more complete and less heavy, but I also had to be very careful with my phone when I pulled it out. Looking up words that I did not know but wanted to use was very useful in that I feel that my vocabulary has greatly improved, as well as my spelling and memorization of word genders for the vocabulary I did not know and even for the vocabulary I did know before the trip, but still looked up because I did not know the gender of the word and did not want to make a faux pas and say the wrong thing.

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you take classes with?

Select all that apply

  • Local Students
  • Americans
About how many local friends did you make that you will likely keep in touch with? 10+

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • Interactions with the Malagasy students
  • Excursions to the field, especially to the rural village
  • The independence and security to travel around town at the end
* What could be improved?
  • SIT headquarter's pre-departure aid and information (since they were entirely unhelpful for the most part and gave information in a disorganized and unhelpful manner)
  • The price (since the amount that we received for the program in Madagascar was significantly less than what we paid, and the rest that went to SIT headquarters was way too much given what an awful job they did with helping me, at least)
  • The academic director occasionally seemed inappropriately uncaring and egotistical, and he didn't like to speak French, which was odd given that it was a French immersion program.
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? I wish I knew not to bring so much stuff! While I didn't bring too many clothes, I definitely brought too many bathroom products (shampoo, conditioner, sunblock, etc.) and too many medications and first aid stuff. I also wish that I had just bought the homestay gifts in Madagascar, because then I could have gotten what the families really needed (for a lot less!). Finally, I wish I knew that I could, and SHOULD, request a new family if I felt uncomfortable with mine.

Individual Course Reviews

Course Name/Rating:

Health Care Practice in Madagascar

Course Department: N/A
Instructor: Dr. Herlyne Ramihantaniarivo; Professor Fana Randimbivololona; Dr. Andriamparany Tolotra
Instruction Language: French
Comments: This class was my favorite of the two, as it directly considered the health of the people as it stands today and how to improve it for the future. The teachers were knowledgeable and well-prepared, and they proposed several interesting and good solutions to Madagascar's health problems, such as an integrated allopathic and traditional system, which can also be applied in other impoverished nations. We had relevant field trips to hospitals, clinics, traditional healers, traditional midwives, and holy sites, among others. This course also required engagement in our rural and urban communities, to determine the health of the people, their access to health care, and how to improve the system such that they receive the best care possible given the resources. Like the other class, this class required greater participation than my normal "classroom-style" courses because it was experience-based. I was assessed by essays, participation and a presentation that I had to give at the end.
Credit Transfer Issues: I have not yet applied for transfer credit, ergo I do not yet know of any issues I may or may not have.
Course Name/Rating:

Social and Political Dimensions of Health

Course Department: N/A
Instructor: Dr. Jean Marius Solo Raharinjanahary; Dr. Bernadin Rabarijaona,
Instruction Language: French
Comments: The course was definitely challenging, as it required extensive reading and independent field research for our paper, the gathering of which was a new experience for me, and as a result I have improved my social research techniques, as well as my French and Malagasy language skills. The lectures were also very interesting and relevant, and because they were in French, I was definitely more challenged to participate in class. The professors brought to light entirely new topics that I've never learned (or even considered) before, including the ancestry of the Malagasy people and the enormous impact of colonization. The many field trips were absolutely relevant, mind-opening and engaging. I was assessed by my participation, presentation of my research, and by my research and seminar papers. Overall, I believe I participated more fully in the class than I usually do at my home institution, and this is in part due to the nature of the program, which required such participation largely because many lessons were experience-based rather than memorization-based. I am very pleased with the amount and level of the French instruction, and I feel that the class has definitely improved my French comprehension and speaking.
Credit Transfer Issues: I have not yet done the paperwork to transfer credit, ergo I do not know if there will be any problems involved.